In The Pursuit of Happiness and Well-Being
If you search the Internet for the term “well-being” you will inevitably come across links to studies which look at the level of happiness people experience in their lives. I too have made this correlation, but the deeper I dig, the more I see that happiness and well-being are not as linked as many may think. In fact, one could say that, rather than happiness being required for one to “be well”, the the reverse is true, and that well-being is needed for happiness.
Or is it?
The problem with happiness is the subjective nature of what makes us happy. Depending on what aspects of life we like, what makes us feel good, and what we find rewarding, different people will react to external stimuli in different ways. Take as an example the skydiver. The moment he launches into open space, kilometers above the ground, the exhilaration of speeding toward the ground at terminal velocity bringing the joy and excitement and freedom of weightlessness is the moment of his ultimate happiness. The side effects of this happiness will lend to his feeling of well-being, but do not cause him to be well. The same situation, for a person not predisposed to extreme sports, may be horrifying. Having experienced it skydiving firsthand, and being somewhat into that kind of outdoor activity, I came away from the experience being filled with excitement and a feeling of “wellness”. (Of course this could be partially a feeling of relief for having survived the experience.)
In addition to this, one can be happy without being well. In fact it is possible to be very ill, but still maintain a happy life. Our outlook on life is not necessarily dependent upon our physical health, but rather upon our mental and emotional state at the time. Happiness is so relative to the person who feels it, and in terms of what causes the happiness to arise, yet we all yearn to do things that make us happy. And there are physiological reasons for this, ones that we all share (except those with specific physiological conditions). Physiologically, certain brain chemicals cause and regulate our emotional states, all across the emotional spectrum. The production of endorphins, dopamine, adrenalin, serotonin and melatonin, in combination, create different moods and emotions within the brain. Too much or too little of these chemicals, or a physical inability within the brain receptors related to these specific chemicals to absorb them, can cause what we call a “disorder”. As a consequence, these people can be in the unenviable position to never feel “happiness” as you or I may feel it.
Depending upon our brain physiology, each of us react differently psychologically to situations and stimuli. Assuming a person has a brain chemistry that we can consider relatively “normal”, we can predict how a person may react to any given situation, within reason. According to Sigmund Freud, we all actively seek pleasure and actively avoid pain, yearning to do that which gives us pleasure (referred to as “the pleasure principle“). While Freud has subsequently been somewhat discredited in psychological circles since he proposed this, mostly because the ideas that he proposed were often untestable or false, the seeking of pleasure over pain is a driving force in our desires and decisions in life, as in the lives of non-human animals.
One could call this the “pursuit of happiness”, while at the same time avoiding pain and suffering. This phrase is best known for its inclusion in the United States Declaration of Independence from 1776, which in the second sentence reads:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This phrase has a loose origin from an earlier document, from by John Locke. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding from 1689, wrote “the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness”. Earlier, Locke had used a similar phrase “life, liberty and property“, with property referring to all physically owned possessions as well as control over the self and personal freedoms. In the form of the Declaration of Independence, these “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” have become the cornerstone for the American way of life, and have been adopted as a starting point for human-rights declarations worldwide.
However, being given the right to the “pursuit of happiness” in no way guarantees that happiness will either be achieved or is even possible for all individuals in all situations. With happiness being so ethereal and relative, how can one guarantee that all people have the right to pursue happiness, especially if their happiness infringes upon the rights of another, or could potentially cause the injury or death of another (infringing upon the first two “unalienable” rights)?
A more apt unalienable right might be a “right to the pursuit of well-being”, which would then afford the pursuit of happiness. If well-being is seen as the precursor for a pursuit of happiness, then we start at a much better, more even and more equitable basis. But this can only work for everyone if one of the tenets of well-being is not infringing upon the well-being of others in the process.